NEW YORK — Ann Taylor is in the midst of an extreme makeover.
The women's apparel chain is trying to shake its "Corporate Cathy" image with the help of a design overhaul, updated stores and a new celebrity spokeswoman -- Naomi Watts -- all in a bid to appeal to younger, more stylish shoppers.
The transformation started last fall with an Ann Taylor runway show during New York Fashion Week, followed this spring by a glitzy Hollywood meet-and-greet at the Soho House in West Hollywood. By May, a cream floral lace sheath dress worn by model Milla Jovovich in store window displays was in such demand that it sold out in a matter of days -- before popping up on EBay at nearly three times the original price.
It's a far cry from the quiet Ann Taylor of yore -- just a step up from Casual Corner -- when it was the kind of place where your mom's cousin from Cincinnati would shop. While most chain retailers reaped the benefits of the highflying early 2000s, Ann Taylor sank into the doldrums of dowdy. The average store lost a third of its sales volume during the last few years, according to Brian Tunick, a retail analyst at JP Morgan in New York.
Those days appear to be over. First-quarter sales for 2010 were up 16% from the same period last year. And the Ann Taylor wardrobe has gone from head-to-toe suit looks to more fashion-forward separates with feminine details. For fall, that means a white asymmetrical military jacket in stretch silk with couture-like brass chain trim ($228); a black knit miniskirt with tiers of pleated chiffon ($128); leopard haircalf kitten heels ($198) and a Swarovski crystal stretch cuff bracelet ($118) with an Art Deco feel.
Lisa Axelson, the woman in charge of giving Ann Taylor a fresh new look, is a 38-year-old mom-to-be with a rather full life who commutes by train from Stamford, Conn., in clothes designed to take her from desk to dusk with the addition of a single sparkling accessory.
She is designing for a company that opened its first shop in 1954 and mirrored the evolution of American women -- from modest frocks for suburban housewives to high-waisted pants and sleeveless shift dresses for a new generation of youth to the matchy-matchy suits that became a workplace uniform. But in the late 1990s, when the casual revolution swathed the land in khaki, the brand failed to evolve.
"I never would have gone to Ann Taylor," says Axelson, who has been creative director and senior vice president of design for nearly two years. "It was too conservative."
What changed her mind? A surprisingly sexy back story.
Axelson opens a scrapbook stuffed with ads from Ann's wilder days in the 1960s and 1970s, and begins reading:
"Ann Taylor announces shoes that do nice things for more than your feet."
"Your love for your mother has nothing to do with the way you dress."
"Look who wears the pants now."
"I started seeing this new glimpse of Ann," the designer says. "She was cheeky -- not rebellious, but she was going against society's norm. Then what happened? She went to work and she suddenly got boring?"
Learning to listen
Axelson grew up in Seattle before grunge, and is as polished and professional as you would expect the figurehead of Ann Taylor to be. Her office is beyond organized. Even the magazine clippings tacked to her bulletin board look tidy. But there is a hint of grit below the surface. Axelson is married to a rock musician named Rocky Reid, whom she met in "a dirty old East Village bar" when she was an art student at Parsons School of Design in New York.
"My parents were open to fashion, but I do remember a conversation, it might have been a heated debate, that stuck with me. My dad was an architect who understood the pressure of being creative. He said, 'If you remember one thing, it's that you're working for a customer, you're working for them. And if you are a designer designing a product for someone else, you have to listen to them.' "
Which may be why Axelson has had so much success designing for shopping mall stalwarts -- specialty retail chain stores that have to listen to all of America.
In 1994, she started at Banana Republic, where she helped "take the brand from Jeeps and safari to casual sportswear." Her favorite design was the Cromwell coat, a chino coat with a high military collar and four patch pockets, which she swears she still sees on women in New York.
In 2002, she joined the Gap. In just one year, she designed the pink Mackintosh that sold out of Gap stores within weeks and helped bring back the brand's popular Crazy Stripe holiday collection.
After that, Abercrombie & Fitch recruited her to launch its now-defunct offshoot Ruehl. When she landed back in New York in 2005, it was at Club Monaco.
Then, in 2008, Ann Taylor came calling.